ATLANTA - When Matthew Barnes came home from Iraq 13-years ago, the now 32-year old shipping manager says no one said anything about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
"The military wasn't ready for us to come home. There was no talk of, 'You might have nightmares. If you do, you need to come talk to somebody," says Barnes.
Joining the Marines fresh out of high school; almost overnight, Barnes found himself manning a machine gun in Iraq.
"When the rounds started incoming, somebody started screaming over the radio, 'Gas! Gas! Gas!, ' he recalls.
That was a false alarm. But the close calls weren't what got to Barnes, it was the chaos, and the children.
He says he came home, got addicted to meth, failed a urine test, and was quickly discharged.
Then, he rebuilt his life, and got a good job. But the slightest noise, like a pallet dropping, would set him off.
"I was having panic attacks daily," says Barnes.
Finally, about 6 months ago, he found the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, where he was diagnosed with PTSD.
"Stuff that I had kept bottled up for years, and never told anybody, like a waterfall, I let it all out," says the Bartow County native. "Prior to treatment, I carried a gun with me everywhere I went, regardless. Since treatment, even though I still have a concealed carry permit, I rarely carry a gun anymore. Much less a pocket knife."
Dr. Sheila Rauch, Clinical Director of Emory Healthcare Veterans Program, says the treatment is tailored to each veteran's needs, focusing not just on PTSD, but traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety and military sexual trauma.
"The goal of the program is really to get veterans to the highest level of function that we really can," says Dr. Rauch.
Using virtual reality exposure therapy like this, Barnes underwent a two week intensive outpatient program -- then 6 weeks of weekly treatments, helping him confront his intrusive memories in a safe way. He also got help with sleep issues, and stress. And, the high point was swimming with other veterans with whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium.
"I literally just let everything go when I was in the water," says Barnes.
That's Matthew Barnes knew it was time to start living again.
"I literally have my life back. I'm not in the house. I'm out there doing it now, " he adds "My biggest regret is that I waited so long to recognize this and deal with it. And now that I have dealt with it, I've got the rest of my life to live."
The Emory Healthcare Veterans Program is available at no cost to post-9/11 veterans with PTSD, TBI or symptoms of depression or anxiety disorder. To find out more, contact the Emory Veterans Program Care Coordinator at 1-888-514-5345 or visit emoryhealthcare.org/veterans.